In Brazil, World Cup talk is colored by politics

A protester plays with a soccer ball as riot police stand guard in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Hundreds gathered to demand the release of two people arrested during an earlier protest.
(Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press)

Daniel Paulo Ribeiro and Guilherme Miguel have very different opinions as to how well Brazil is hosting the World Cup soccer tournament, despite watching it unfold from the same street corner in the host city of Recife.

“It’s going fantastically. Brazilians have shown how well they can welcome the world,” said Ribeiro, 62, who runs a newspaper stand on the corner.

Miguel, 19, a hotel receptionist, doesn’t see it that way.

“People may be happy now, but if Brazil loses, this place could be smashed up immediately,” he said. “You couldn’t call any of this a success just because there has been no tragedy. The government left everything until the last minute and broke most of its promises.”


It’s not surprising that Miguel and Ribeiro disagree on another major issue in Brazil: whom they will vote for in October’s presidential election. Ribeiro is a supporter of President Dilma Rousseff and her left-leaning Workers’ Party, which is widely associated with the World Cup project. Miguel wants her out.

There may be no topic of conversation more popular in Brazil this year than the degree to which the nation has successfully been able to put on a World Cup. It is a conversation that has become overtly, if not stridently, political, to the point that Brazilians may see the same events unfolding yet come to radically different conclusions. In this election year, it seems the beauty — or ugliness — of the tournament is in the eye of the beholder.

“If there were some kind of catastrophe, or chaos, that embarrassed Brazil in front of the world, that would clearly have negative consequences for the government in the election,” said Francisco Fonseca, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo. “Partisans on both sides have a clear reason to fight over how the World Cup is interpreted.”

Since the June 12 kickoff, Brazil’s World Cup boosters have been running a victory lap, loudly exclaiming Brazilian Portuguese versions of “I told you so” as the games have gone relatively smoothly.

There has been a big shift from just before the games, when discontent was widespread and many thought some sort of crisis was possible. The high-water mark for that attitude may have come when Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo switched from being one of the World Cup’s loudest cheerleaders to criticizing the preparations and openly endorsing opposition candidate Aecio Neves for the presidency.

The popular Brazilian comedy group Porta dos Fundos released a video Sunday sending up the cup polarization. In the clip, already viewed more than a million times, a host on a sports show asks two guests what they think of the game. To his frustration, neither responds directly to the question.

Instead, a representative of Brazil’s soccer federation talks about how “this proves that Brazil was ready,” while a former soccer player named Guerreiro says, “I’m here to talk about the money that’s going to stadiums and not to schools. And I’m here to talk about my campaign.... Vote Guerreiro!”

President Rousseff, who has a strong base of support among Brazil’s poor, is the front-runner in pre-election polls. But the two opposition candidates, Neves and Eduardo Campos, remain relatively unknown and analysts think opinion could sway in their favor, especially if the mood surrounding the World Cup changes.

Still, as musician Antonio Carlos Jobim famously said, “Brazil is not for beginners,” and the fight over how to interpret the World Cup is not as simple as a left-right political split. Though Brazil’s divided opposition, to the right of Rousseff, has played up the poor infrastructure, costly stadiums that were barely completed in time and the chaos wrought by demonstrations that rocked the country in May and early June, much of the most dedicated anti-cup protesters have been on the radical or anarchist left.

In the middle are many who are thrilled to have the tournament held in Brazil, even if they may also have serious concerns about the way it was staged. Some have accused the local news media, which often lean to the right of the government, of whipping up fear.

But even among those without strong political allegiances, it’s common to have an opinion on the World Cup.

“In Brazil, you can’t separate politics and soccer,” said Paulo Correa, an English teacher in Belo Horizonte, a host city. “If Brazil wins the World Cup, [Rousseff] is going to win the election.”

Fonseca, the political scientist, said that view isn’t backed by much evidence, but it’s nevertheless widespread.

Lene Oliveira Carlota, a lawyer in the host city of Manaus, which built a stadium to host four World Cup games, criticized the spending on the tournament and said short-term success in that area will not resolve long-term problems.

“For the millions they spent on that stadium, they could have built two or three hospitals,” she said. Still, she doesn’t think the success of the cup will have much influence on local politics.

On Saturday, Brazil takes on Chile, and the outcome will determine whether the host team will remain in the tournament. Despite their differences, there’s one thing Ribeiro and Miguel agree on enthusiastically: They’ll both be watching.

Bevins is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Chris Feliciano Arnold in Belo Horizonte and Manaus contributed to this report.